Yes, we read the Brooks column about Stott

All_souls_1As you would imagine, legions of readers from around the world saw fit to email us copies of David Brooks’ op-ed page tribute to the great evangelical Anglican apologist John Stott. Nothing causes evangelicals to cut and paste and then click send (or forward) as much as a kind word for traditional faith in the pages of the Bible of the blue zip-code elites.

Perhaps they were surprised that Brooks, who leans left on the hot social issues, was so kind to an intellectual who has for decades defended the concept of eternal moral absolutes. I was not surprised, in part because I have interviewed Brooks and knew of his interest in the ideas and influence of C.S. Lewis. If someone starts reading Lewis and then follows that side of the traditional Christian thought into modern evangelicalism, he will bump into Stott sooner rather than later.

Once upon a time, the New York Times used to admire the writings of Lewis and his ilk. Perhaps Brooks is the rare person at the TImes who still read serious books by traditional Judeo-Christian thinkers.

This was, in a way, the point of the column by Brooks. He was steamed (amen, brother) by the astonishingly stupid sight of Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton sitting on "Meet the Press" trying to discuss religion and public life with Tim Russert.

Earth to Russert: What were you thinking? I realize that there were other people on the show, including some fairly logical usual suspects on the left and right. But anyone who still thinks that Sharpton and Falwell have anything insightful to say about the views of the religious left and right should go see a journalism doctor, quick. As Brooks said:

Inviting these two bozos onto "Meet the Press" to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school.

Thus, Brooks asked: Why do so many media people quote Falwell and Pat Robertson, people whose influence is long gone, instead of interviewing people such as Stott? The sermons and books from the legendary voice of All Souls, Langham Place, in London (shown in the picture) have influenced evangelicals around the world for decades and will continue to do so for years to come.

Brooks is asking a question that is at the very heart of the mainstream media’s problems with religion coverage — when dealing with the religious left as well as the right. Why not turn to the bright lights on the left and right, instead of merely seeking the familiar red faces that provide emotional heat?

It isn’t fair to have stupid conservatives paired off with smart liberals or, perhaps on Fox, the other way around. And it isn’t fair to contrast, in the name of diversity, a few smart evangelicals on the left with the old voices of the simplistic right. The reason Brooks saluted Stott was because the low-church Anglican priest is nuanced, sympathetic, quotable AND a traditionalist.

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock — especially if you’re a Jew like me — when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It’s like being in "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood," except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed.

As I said, this is a matter of how journalists do their homework and find sources. Another interesting article on this same subject — entitled "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews" — showed up at Tech Central Station, of all places. In it, Harvard Law School professor William J. Stuntz jumps behind the red and blue imagery to discuss what he has learned in the bluest of blue environments, the faculty club at Harvard, and what sounds like a pretty red environment, his own evangelical congregation.

Not surprisingly, each of these institutions is enemy territory to the other. But the enmity is needless. It may be a sign that I’m terminally weird, but I love them both, passionately. And I think that if my church friends and my university friends got to know each other, they’d find a lot to like and admire. More to the point, the representatives of each side would learn something important and useful from the other side. … You wouldn’t know it from talking to the people who populate universities or fill church pews.

Church people assume that universities are no longer interested in fair debates. You can see where I am going with this idea. Church people make precisely the same assumption about newsrooms. Thus, everything Stuntz writes about his university faculty club can also be applied to the need for newsrooms to be more open-minded in seeking diversity in sources about religion news. At one point in the article a professor friend turns to Stuntz and says: "You know, I think you’re the first Christian I’ve ever met who isn’t stupid." Traditional religious believers make the same kinds of snap judgments all the time about journalists and thinkers on the left.

The bottom line: Churches and faculty clubs are supposed to be places where people take ideas, doctrines, traditions and debates seriously. You could say the same thing about newsrooms.

In the end, America is failing to hear interesting and important viewpoints on a wide range of issues — from failing schools to abortion. Other issues seem to have vanished altogether from national policy debates. Take the issue of poverty and economic justice, for example. Stuntz believes this is tragic.

I don’t think my liberal Democratic professor friends like this state of affairs. And — here’s a news flash — neither do most evangelicals, who regard helping the poor as both a passion and a spiritual obligation, not just a political preference. (This may be even more true of theologically conservative Catholics.) These men and women vote Republican not because they like the party’s policy toward poverty — cut taxes and hope for the best — but because poverty isn’t on the table anymore.

So what is on the table? Whatever the likes of Sharpton and Falwell want to yell about — on cue. What journalists need is some new names and telephone numbers in their Rolodexes. They can start with the Rev. John Stott.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dlw

    At issue with Stott is not whether or not there is such a thing as “absolute morality”, but rather whether we can infer right conduct on the basis of our fallible notions of said morality. I.e., is it realistic to think we can make first-trimester elective abortions illegal and what do we make of the fact that homosexuality is both chosen and not chosen with one’s orientation being separate from one’s lifestyle.

    One can affirm absolute morality while being more open about how we also rely on fallible traditions to discern right conduct in the here and now.


  • ken53

    Sorry, one cannot be pro death penalty and call themselves a christian.

    Stott had best review the teachings of Jesus instead of appologizing for politicians/killers who take mostly black men out of cages just so they can kill them. Do only black people commit crimes in this country?

    BTW the choice actually is between Falwell and Sharpton – or at least what they represent. People like Stott have to pick sides. Nuance be dammed. There is no place for nuance any more.

  • Erik Nelson

    If one can’t be pro-death penalty and a Christian, was Paul not a Christian then? After all, Paul tells us in Romans that government has the obligation to use the sword against those who do evil.

    Any simplistic statement like that offered by ken53 above does not take into account the complex moral obligations the Gospels lay before us, and the complex ways Christians will desire to see those obligations played out in public policy. Strange, then, that ken53 would complain about the lack of nuance when his first sentence is completely devoid of it.

    Even John Paul II does not believe that the Death Penalty is *in principle* disallowed by the Gospels.

    It is even more complicated when it comes to issues such as poverty. What the scriptures tell us to do is care for the poor. But it does not tell us that welfare state solutions to poverty are best. What scripture gives us as examples are people going and helping the poor with their own hands. That does not mean welfare state solutions are bad (only prudential judgment can decide such thing). Christians will come to differing judgments on some political matters on which scripture gives only limited guidance. And that is on many, many policy issues.

    Christians should glory in their different approaches to dealing with social issues. Conservatives prefer civil society approaches to dealing with poverty, liberals tend to prefer expanded state program solutions to poverty. I don’t see it as a weakness that there is disagreement, but a strength — more approaches to dealing with poverty means more people will be involved in their own ways. Those who try to impose strictures on what is and is not a legitimate way to deal with poverty (an argument which seems to come mostly from the religious left) need to realize that on the principle laid down in the Gospel, we are all in agreement.

  • Molly

    “Why not turn to the bright lights on the left and right, instead of merely seeking the familiar red faces that provide emotional heat?”

    I think you answered your own question! The reason is that the bottom line responds to the red faces and not reasonable, intelligent discussion.

    “So what is on the table? Whatever the likes of Sharpton and Falwell want to yell about — on cue. What journalists need is some new names and telephone numbers in their Rolodexes. They can start with the Rev. John Stott.”

    I think another way of putting nutritious food for thought on the table is to do away with the red and blue menus. Thought and opinion are much more – excuse me, diverse – than these two flavors.

  • Dwight

    You can tell the evolution of media coverage this way: the media in the 1950s would look to folks like Rheinhold Neibuhr for views on Protestantism.

    Two novel suggestions fitting with this entry. One, I don’t think Wallis (who hid from any discussion of social issues) would make as much sense as say a mainline Protestant on such shows. Second, on both sides: why not have trained theologians discuss the issues at hand? Instead of Falwell and Sharpton imagine…

    Hauerwas vs. Wiegel on the war in Iraq

    Richard Holloway vs. John Stott on sexual ethics

    and so on

  • TSO

    By Ken53′s criteria C.S. Lewis, who supported capital punishment, wasn’t a Christian.

  • dlw

    I think one’s support for the death-penalty as a Christian should depend on whether or not it has a deterrence effect relative to life-time imprisonment. I think that the existence of this deterrence effect may be specific to a particular time and place and is usually not measured by virtue of the lack of adequate variation in the treatment of whether there is a death-penalty.

    As such, I proffer to death-penalty activists my own pragmatic suggestion for how they may better expend their activist energies.


  • Robert

    As long as popular media are controlled by the corporate elite we’re stuck with “news-as-entertainment” and all we’ll hear and see are the likes of Falwell and Sharpton. Critical thought and transparent dialogue are dangerous to the established order, after all.

    The only place you hear intelligence or nuance now is NPR/PBS (occassionally) and on the net.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I rather like the idea of Larry Flynt and Britney debating D.H. Lawrence. But I write with only two points:

    1. Sharpton and Falwell’s influence may have waned, but they still represent substantial constituencies, like it or not.

    2. Let’s retire the term “Judeo-Christian,” a propoganda invention, if I’m not mistaken, of WWII, and a euphemism for, “Psst! We’re not Muslim!” As a phrase, it obscures important differences more than it reveals common ground. There was a time in America when Jews liked it because it removed some of the heat; and now a lot of Christians like it because it allows them to seem “tolerant.” How about instead we Christians and Jews just be Christians and Jews? Better yet, how about we journalists discard euphemistic terms dreamed up by ecumenical roundtables?

  • Jeremy Pierce

    Actually, the Judeo-Christian tradition is usually seen as including Islam and other religions and groups that see themselves as stemming from the same tradition. What it doesn’t include is Hinduism, Buddhism, and other far eastern traditions. What it’s usually mean to stand for is traditional western (which is really from the ancient near east) monotheism.